The veteran wins in a manner quite similar to the way he took the 2001 Daytona 500.
By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published July 7, 2002
DAYTONA BEACH -- The happiest time in Michael Waltrip's racing career lasted 15 minutes.
This time, he can savor victory. Waltrip's long overdue first win came the mournful day his friend and car owner Dale Earnhardt died in the 2001 Daytona 500. Waltrip made his second trip to Victory Lane at Daytona International Speedway as the winner of Saturday's Pepsi 400.
He was all smiles this time.
"We're going to party," said Waltrip, who spun circles through the trioval grass in the No. 15 Chevrolet as flash bulbs popped. "We're going to celebrate."
Leading on a restart with six laps to go, Waltrip pulled away as cars scattered behind him in wild, four-wide racing. A flat tire on Ryan Newman's car brought out the caution flag with three laps left and sealed Waltrip's win. He took the checkered flag under caution.
Rusty Wallace's Ford was second, his best Daytona finish and first top five this season. He was followed by Winston Cup points leader Sterling Marlin and Jimmy Spencer in Dodges and Mark Martin in a Ford.
Waltrip won the Daytona 500 with help from teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., who stayed in second place to assure a victory for Dale Earnhardt Inc. Behind them in Turn4, Dale Earnhardt was killed when his black No. 3 slammed nearly head-on into the outside wall.
Word reached Waltrip in Victory Lane.
"I was sad because Dale Earnhardt got killed, not because I couldn't celebrate," said Waltrip, who Saturday moved up two places to 12th in the standings. "I can smile about winning the Daytona 500 and about winning this race, because I know Dale would."
Waltrip and Earnhardt Jr. have been restrictor-plate pals ever since. When the series returned to Daytona in July 2001, Waltrip pushed Earnhardt Jr. to an emotional victory in the first race at the track after his father's fatal crash. They repeated the feat at Talladega in April, and Waltrip was criticized for not trying to win.
Saturday, the race between the DEI teammates was to see which driver would get the lead first. It was Waltrip, who took the lead with a lightning-fast pit stop on Lap 61, retained it during a green-flag stop on Lap 118 and protected it on two late restarts.
Waltrip led 99 of 160 laps, including the final 42.
Earnhardt Jr., second on the final restart, pulled out of line to try to beat his teammate, but no one in the lead pack went with him. Without drafting partners, critical in races where restrictor plates sap horsepower, he fell back to finish sixth.
"We tried to make a pass on Michael for the win and we came up short," said Earnhardt Jr., who had won three of the previous four restrictor-plate races. "We didn't get any drafting help. I stayed behind him most of the race, kept us both up front.
"I don't think anybody would want us to just sit there and cookie-cutter the whole thing out and orchestrate the finish. I tried to make a move on him and I thought I had a good effort, but Michael got more help."
That help came from Wallace, who decided it was too risky to leave the inside line.
"I really would have thought he'd try to pass him on the inside; there was nothing up top," Wallace said. "When he shot up there I said, "Man, I'm not going for it.' I decided to stay down. It was a gutsy move, though. His pop would have tried it just the way he did. Maybe that's why he did it."
The big wreck drivers dread in races at Daytona and Talladega, superspeedways where restrictor plates are used on carburetors to limit air flow and horsepower, occurred on Lap 136.
Five laps after a restart, contact between Jeff Burton and Dale Jarrett sent Jarrett spinning up the track. Ten cars were involved, including Joe Nemechek's No. 25 Chevrolet, which hit the outside wall hard, and Brett Bodine's No. 11 Ford, which caught fire.
No one was seriously injured.
Though experience told Waltrip he could not pass Earnhardt Jr. either time he finished second to his teammate, Waltrip was not surprised to see Earnhardt Jr. try.
"I didn't really like seeing that, but I had such a fast car," Waltrip said. "The cars behind you will go with the guy who's got the best car. But I know Junior, and he would be kicking himself in the butt right now if he finished second and didn't try. I'm happy he did it because no one can say we just rode around here in formation."
This win, nothing could diminish.